2023. 02. 15.

Embedded, necessary, meaningful – are these ingredients sufficient for a sustainable RRI future?

Responsible research and innovation (RRI) has been around for more than a decade. A wealth of know-how on its implementation has accumulated over the years, but the RRI still faces considerable challenges. The 3rd RRI Roundtable Meeting on 1st of December 2022 gathered experienced RRI researchers around a virtual table to consider the prospects of RRI. Participants shared their viewpoints on the future challenges and opportunities of RRI, and this discussion crystallized in two aspects how to ensure that RRI continues to create impact also in the future.

RRI needs handy and actionable tools

First, the participants confirmed that RRI confronts the problem of how to move from principles into concrete practices of doing. Despite available instruments such as RRI-tools.eu, many shared the feeling that practitioners lack sufficient means to implement RRI in organizations.

The challenge is twofold. First, RRI must improve in applying learnings from theories on organizational change and institutionalization to align RRI tools with processes that are known to enable change. Second, RRI implementors must account for the local contexts, structures, needs, and interests of institutions, stakeholders, and innovation practices to apply RRI principles and concepts in a way that best fits the situation. Indeed, RRI must become more practical for organizations, companies, policymakers, and RRI practitioners: these actors need guidelines and tools that help practitioners to operationalize RRI in local contexts.

What should be done to bridge the principles-to-practices gap?

  • Hybrid actors. We need actors who can tailor RRI principles into practical tools that fit the organizational context. By hybrid actors we mean agents that function both as practitioners, facilitators, and trainers, and who participate simultaneously in developing the concept theoretically. These agents could help in bridging the gap at several levels of (eco)systems and between theory and practice: they can bring the right information for the right persons at the right time.
  • Engagement. Motivating engagement and commitment to long-term collaboration comes from making commitment desirable for stakeholders. Inherently we are talking about building networks and trust, and articulating the goals, values, and potential benefits that RRI implementation can achieve (compared to not implementing RRI). Different incentives tied to these goals and values play an important role in supporting implementation. Another solution is to highlight and communicate inspiring examples of how RRI can be successfully practiced.
  • Communication and capacity building. Some practitioners believe that the RRI concept is too academic and multifaceted to easily be translated into meaningful terms for persons and organizations not familiar with responsibility issues. Instead of using RRI terminology, more familiar terminology of sustainability and responsibility can resonate better with the audience. RRI practitioners need to be ready to explain the contextual relevance of abstract concepts such as "responsibility", “society” or “ethics” to audiences who do not have articulated understandings of these in a particular context. Breaking down RRI concepts, values, and goals into manageable information nuggets with examples furthers communication, understanding and trust, and encourages participants to engage in mutual dialogue and learning. Easier digested information would also help in making informed decisions about RRI implementation in an organization. Hence, making key RRI concepts practically meaningful requires good communication, information campaigns, and training that help in familiarizing new audiences with RRI. This kind of awareness raising also builds communities capable of discussing the societal impacts of innovations, and supports embedding RRI into expectations, mindsets, informal discussions, and organizational routines and practices.
  • Expectation management. While immensely important, RRI is not a quick and easy fix. Practitioners and implementing organizations should expect long-term programs for collaborations and consequent multi-stakeholder interaction and dialogue. RRI uptake requires actual changes in an organization as it is not simply a question of adding social and environmental KPIs. Real change demands altering normalized practices and investing in training and learning that foster new skills and capabilities.

Nurturing RRI presence in EU funding mechanisms and among key stakeholders

Second, the RRI researchers are aware of the fact that while the different keys and approaches under the RRI umbrella will survive (e.g., inclusion, diversity, engagement, responsiveness, ethics), the RRI itself risks fading away if left unnurtured. Therefore, the researchers should aim to ensure that RRI is entangled in the new period of EU funds and instruments; that it is articulated both in funding opportunities and on the demand side. For example, targeted RRI training for those who write the EU calls can be useful for this task.

To ensure meaningful implementation of RRI, practitioners must raise awareness among those key stakeholders who influence how RRI will be used. Overall awareness building, training, and communication should target governments, policymakers, innovation platforms, universities, large companies, citizen organizations, and citizens themselves. Such action could cause snowball effects: if one major actor manages to achieve success, it will show the path to others by example.

What are the ingredients for a perfect RRI recipe?

Ultimately RRI is a set of tools and principles that helps align research and innovation with the common good and find solutions to societal challenges. RRI helps companies and research institutes ensure they are operating towards sustainable solutions and goals and have a legitimate social license to operate.

Discussants of the 3rd RRI Roundtable brought up three keywords to characterize the future vision of RRI: meaningful, necessary, and embedded. In this vision, RRI becomes meaningful to the organization and employees of a particular organization both in terms of the strategic goals and everyday routines and practices. RRI also becomes necessary as organisations, managers, and employees perceive why RRI change is essential. Finally, RRI becomes embedded and normalized into organizational practices. The perfect RRI recipe then would be easily applicable to the organizational culture and practices with the local ingredients and resources at hand that, and would lead to lasting change and commitment.

To provide the best available help, RRI practitioners have work to do in narrowing the principles to practices gap and ensuring the presence of the goals of RRI on the agenda of the stakeholders that impact innovation and research policy. Although change is a long and demeaning journey, the best way is to start acting. As a roundtable participant wrote,

“RRI will be more embedded in the future if we start thinking more on how to implement RRI instead of trying to study and figure out the concept of RRI”.

We would like to extend our sincerest thanks to the RRI Roundtable community, whose viewpoints are mirrored in this text: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, The Council of Tampere Region, SosScience, EURADA, DARINNO, and AIT Austrian Institute of Technology.

A blogpost by Anton Sigfrids, Research Scientist in AI ethics, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Nina Rilla, Senior Scientist in responsible innovation, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

@photo: VTT